3D-Printing: reshaping industries… and intellectual rights?
According to the latest definition, 3D-Printing concerns all the processes through which a three-dimensional object can be created under computer control. This concept was developed by the Japanese researcher Hideo Kodama in the 1980s just as a convenient method to build plastic models. However, it has found several applications in different fields ever since.
Indeed, new methodologies have been conceived over the years, resulting in the progressive extension of the range of materials used in the process (glass, metal, ceramics, plastic, …) and therefore, of the objects these technologies can shape. Moreover, the fact that the cost of 3D-printers has steadily decreased over time, starting from more than 100 thousand dollars to less than 1 thousand dollars, has made this market much bigger and competitive than predicted.
Keeping this in mind, one might wonder what implications this technological innovation can have on the economy. On one hand, this can be considered a breakthrough, since production processes can become more flexible, as editing the digital project is enough to adapt the product in such a way it meets changes in people’s preferences.
Moreover, many sectors can highly benefit from it. If one draws his/her attention to the market of spare parts, one can see how it can profit as far as efficiency is concerned. Mechanics will not need to estimate which kind of inventory they should order anymore, because they could just print the needed part upon approval of the producer.
Another noticeable example is healthcare: if a patient needs a transplant now, he has to wait and hope for the organ. However, if it were feasible to make that organ upon demand, such a problem would be solved automatically. Despite the way it sounds, this scenario is far from a distant future. In fact, in July 2017 a team of scientists from ETH Zurich in Switzerland managed to create a 3D-printed artificial heart, which is capable to beat almost like a human heart. This prototype cannot be implanted yet, since the maximum number of beats it can sustain is around 3 thousand, but it is enough in order to shed light on a new way to develop artificial hearts.
This technology is so flexible that it is even starting to enter the food industry: if one happens to wander in London, he/she may bump into Food Ink, a restaurant where everything, from food to furniture is 3D-printed. Despite mixed feelings about the union of cuisine and technology, this business has proved to be successful so far, therefore it is not unlikely that this idea will spread in the future years.
Although the advantages are quite significant, all that glitters is not gold. Indeed, since 3D printers are becoming progressively more affordable over time, anyone will be able to produce any object he may desire. However, not all individuals have the sufficient knowledge needed to build objects which meet minimum safety standards. Hence, this phenomenon may fill households with potentially dangerous products – where the risks would be difficult to assess beforehand.
Moreover, another consequence would concern the increasing complexity in fighting imitation and patent infringements, because everybody would have the means to reproduce any object by employing a relatively low amount of money. Therefore, one may ask herself whether it is sensible to halt this continuous improvement in the quality/cost ratio in order for these rights to be preserved or whether it would be a better idea to change the current paradigm according to which rights are protected.
It is a difficult question to answer, and maybe a license should be introduced for the sake of safety. However what is almost certain, is that this innovation is spreading exponentially, thus it would be wise to regulate it in advance so as to avoid unnecessary, or even dangerous accidents.
WRITTEN BY DANIELE GOFFI FOR BESA
PLEASE DIRECT ANY INQUIRY TO AS.BESA@UNIBOCCONI.IT